As part of our Farm 2026 series looking at what the future of UK agriculture may hold, this week we look at using data. Marie-Claire reports.
Agriculture is getting flexible. Technology is connecting farmers to their supply chains and the wider environment, enabling businesses to react to changes in market conditions and factors affecting productivity.
Sensors in drains can alert farmers when they are losing fertiliser into watercourses, aiding resource efficiency and environmental protection.
Crop growth and soil moisture data, combined with weather forecasts and updates from customers, can help farmers predict and control crop growth, forecast peaks in demand and maximise market value.
Increasingly, data is fed to actuators on-farm, which adjust relevant inputs automatically. The aim is to create a self-managing system which provides farmers with clear information, probably via an app on their phone, enabling them to monitor their crop and alert them when something goes wrong.
Prof Alistair Stott, head of the future farming systems group at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), said: “What matters is not so much the technology, but what you do with data the technology supplies you with. There are lots of different ways this data can be used.
“It is quite important to be able to manage a crop on an individual basis and technology allows you to do that.”
For example, Prof Scott said moisture sensors on tractors or cameras on drones or satellites can measure soil moisture content in different ways.
No matter how it is collected, if used wisely, this data enables farmers to prevent waterlogging and irrigate dry areas of fields, square metre by square metre.
Prof Stott and his colleague at SRUC Dave Ross helped set up the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri-EPI), one of three new centres of excellence supported by the Government, which are providing a place for innovators and farmers to meet and work together.
Mr Ross, acting chief executive of the centre, says membership is anticipated to be free for qualifying businesses for the first 12 months, enabling farmers to engage with the latest technological developments, get involved in projects and attend stakeholder meetings without investment.
Mr Ross said: “Agri-EPI is unique across the new innovation centre initiatives as it is investing infrastructure in real commercial farms across all main commodities, including aquaculture.
“These farms are located geographically across the UK and will have local farmer-accessible meeting spaces. This is anticipated to give a greater locally delivered awareness and demonstration of new technological advances for farmers.”
The centre is looking for investment from tech companies, which will use it to develop, test and disseminate innovations which genuinely save farmers time and money.
“It is likely to have much more of a technological-based infrastructure to aid in farm management, precision, efficiency, productivity and, ultimately, profit.
“An internet of things environment could mean interconnected tractors, machinery, even individual animal monitoring systems, will provide the future farmer with real-time farm performance measures.”
“Farms are going to use ICT and computers a lot more. It will be a lot different to where we are now. There are barriers at the moment in terms of connections between tractors, weigh scales, weeders. We will soon be in a much better position to be taking information from the field, but also see the information is fed back to farmers to help people make decisions on-farm in real-time.”
“The internet of things is going to be of great value to farmers. There will be an app on their phone which tells them something has gone wrong in a chicken shed somewhere. But it also has to be about how we connect farmers and the people who eat food. So many people are feeling so disconnected. It could give them some ownership of agribusiness. I think people do want that.”
Camilla Hayselden-Ashby of Farm491, the Royal Agricultural University’s agri-tech incubation centre, says venture capital firms and technology companies, such as Google, are already investing in the sector.
She said: “The internet giant’s ventures arm has contributed to several high-profile funding rounds, with a $15 million investment in data management company the Farmers Business Network.
“Monsanto got into the game early, acquiring agricultural analytics and risk management company the Climate Corporation for $1.1bn in 2013.
“It is essential data is analysed and used to affect change either by the farmer or a professional adviser.
“Agri-tech companies are taking inspiration from user experience [UX] design and data visualisation companies to make products more user-friendly.”
Increasingly, farmers are taking an ‘internet of things’ approach, installing a web of devices embedded with electronics, software, sensors, cameras and actuators on farms. Each element is networked, usually wirelessly, enabling data sharing.
Tags, chips, sensors and cameras fitted to animals, tractors, satellites, drones or unmanned ground vehicles, or placed in the environment or on buildings, all gather information which can help maximise productivity and flexibility.
But the digital farm – the central database, held on a computer and mirroring exactly the farm in real life – can lead to confusion, frustration and chaos if poorly managed.
Precision farming adviser Ian Beecher-Jones said: “Different types of information are available to farmers from different sources. It presents wonderful opportunities, but also management issues. There can be too much information or issues with reliability, but the single biggest challenge is how things are named.
“It is so stupid and so simple. If you send a drone up and ask it to collect information, the information is only any good if you can put it on the digital farm in the right place.”
Every individual, including the farmer, farm manager, consultant, agronomist, spray operator, drillman, ploughman, software engineer and machinery supplier, must talk the same language, he said.
Mr Beecher-Jones added: “You need to take account of how the team is working together through actual human interaction.”